One Million is partially a discrete story and partially a corporate directive: a coordinated event involving the work of dozens of DC’s artists and writers for hire, but with core concepts created by Grant Morrison, who with Val Semeiks and Prentiss Rollins generated the four-issue miniseries in which the main story events occur. Morrison’s work stands out for considering the DC Universe’s structure from a critical perspective, and in One Million he presents a vision of the future that, as an extrapolation, highlights the unspoken paradoxes of the DC Universe as an ecology for intellectual property more than it does the rules of cause and effect that ostensibly govern the universe as a serial fiction. One of the members of the Justice League asks logically, “What are the chances of an identical JLA arising hundreds of centuries from now?”; the degree of similarity between this future of the DC Universe and its present seems a stretch even within the loose reality of superheroes, and yet, given the real rules of the DC Universe—Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman must maintain the iconicity, the brand equity, that makes them viable in a market—it makes perfect sense that, within the parameters of this corporate fiction, the year 85,271 will bring us more of the same Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
We went to Douglas’s house for the Fourth; well, Douglas’s and Lisa’s and Sterling’s. There were some comics people there, and some people who weren’t comics people, but there were enough comics people there that we talked a bit about comics. (There was a music person or two there as well, and we also talked about music, but everyone can talk about music.) —Douglas was passing around the first issue of Mike Kunkel’s Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!, soliciting reactions (consensus: why did he have to credit himself with words and pictures and heart?) (though I thought but didn’t say: Open Season!); this prompted one of the people who weren’t comics people to ask which Captain Marvel this was.
“DC’s got him,” someone said.
“Yeah, but this is following pretty closely on Jeff Smith’s take,” said someone else.
“So it’s in Jeff Smith continuity?” said a third person, disingenuously.
“Well, there are fifty-two universes in the DC universe now,” I said, only a tad less disingenuously. “So who knows?”
“Exactly fifty-two?” said the person who wasn’t a comics person.
“Yes,” said Douglas, with that smile of his. This is so ridiculously geeky; this is so ridiculously cool.
“Except one was destroyed, right?” I said.
“In fact, it was the fifty-first that was destroyed,” said Douglas. “So now it goes one through fifty and fifty-two.” —They hang like fruit from the Multiversal Orrery, green and blue and cloud-frosted: “New Earth is secure,” says the super-science guy in his super-science car. “The Bleed drains are intact. The Multiversal Orrery has survived repair after the loss of moving part: Universe 51.” (It is all so much bigger than we even imagine, yet look! The Earth is still the most important place of all. How comforting!)
“So, are we in there somewhere?” said a different person who wasn’t a comics person.
“Not anymore,” said Douglas.
“To them,” I said, “we’re fictional.” I hadn’t known we weren’t in there anymore. I’m thinking of fiction suits.
“Well, actually, not exactly,” said Douglas, his smile widening. “In All-Star Superman 10, Superman jumpstarts the infant universe Qwewq to see what a world without superheroes would be like. And it’s us. He created us. Superman is basically God.” —And it’s true; he did, almost as an afterthought, with a nano-optical transfusion of pure solar energy. And it’s us. There at the end we see Earth-Q, inside the barely beating heart of the sickly infant universe Qwewq, and there’s Joe Shuster, drawing Action Comics #1: “I really think this is it… Third time lucky. This is the one… this is going to change everything.” (As above, so below, yes yes, which leaves only one question: what’s up?)
“Wouldn’t it make more sense if his father was God and he sent Superman to save us?” said the person who wasn’t a comics person.
“Well,” Douglas started to say, but I hadn’t been paying attention; I was trying not to think of Chris Ware, so I interrupted. I said, “Wait a minute. Didn’t they send that superteam into Qwewq to save it from not having superheroes?” [JLA: Classified 1 – 3. —Ed.]
“The Ultramarines,” said Douglas. “Yes.”
“So if we’re Qwewq, then where are they?” I said, spreading my hands to take us all in. “Because they sure aren’t here.” (“A doomed micro-Earth, in an infant universe,” says the Knight. “With no such thing as superheroes,” says Jack O’Lantern. “This should be interesting…” says Warmaker One.)
“Ah,” said Douglas. “They aren’t here yet.”
In Molho’s bookshop, one of the few downtown reminders of earlier times, I found Joseph Nehama’s magisterial Histoire de Israélites de Salonique, and began to see what an extraordinary story it had been. The arrival of the Iberian Jews after their expulsion from Spain, Salonica’s emergence as a renowned centre of rabbinical learning, the disruption caused by the most famous False Messiah of the seventeenth century, Sabbetai Zevi, and the persistent faith of his followers, who followed him even after his conversion to Islam, formed part of a fascinating and little-known history unparalleled in Europe. Enjoying the favour of the sultans, the Jews, as the Ottoman traveller Evliya Chelebi noted, called the city “our Salonica”—a place where, in addition to Turkish, Greek and Bulgarian, most of the inhabitants “know the Jewish tongue because day and night they are in contact with, and conduct business with Jews.”
Yet as I supplemented my knowledge of the Greek metropolis with books and articles on its Jewish past, and tried to reconcile what I knew of the home of Saint Dimitrios—“the Orthodox City”—with the Sefardic “Mother of Israel,” it seemed to me that these two histories—the Greek and the Jewish—did not so much complement one another as pass each other by. I had noticed how seldom standard Greek accounts of the city referred to the Jews. An official tome from 1962 which had been published to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of its capture from the Turks contained almost no mention of them at all; the subject had been regarded as taboo by the politicians masterminding the celebrations. This reticence reflected what the author Elias Petropoulos excoriated as “the ideology of the barbarian neo-Greek bourgeoisie,” for whom the city “has always been Greek.” But at the same time, most Jewish scholars were just as exclusive as their Greek counterparts: their imagined city was as empty of Christians as the other was of Jews.
As for the Muslims, who had ruled Salonica from 1430 to 1912, they were more or less absent from both.
If they aren’t here yet, well, that does resolve a few things, I suppose, such as how the Knight and Beryl, his Squire, can show up a year and a half later on the island of Jonathan Mayhew, and how Superman inspires Earth-Q after the Justice League chases Black Death into it and gets lost. (“As unlikely as it seems,” he says, “this unhealthy attoscopic copy of Earth developed entirely without superheroes.” —Superman isn’t usually one to lie behind the passive voice.) —But keep in mind there are two Qwewqs in that story: the infant universe, over immensely unthinkable gobs of time, grows up into the adult universe of Qwewq, tainted by a seed of evil planted long ago now by Black Death, and despondent at having grown up for so very long without superheroes of its own, it comes back in time to attack the Justice League even as they’re lost inside its infant self: it becomes Neh-Buh-Loh, the Nebula Man, whose touch has the power of 20 atomic bombs. (We become; attoscopically small though we may be, in an unimaginably large universe the size of a big man, we are nonetheless the most important thing of all. We come back in time, despondent, tainted; it didn’t change everything, after all.)
And we know what happens to Neh-Buh-Loh, dark Huntsman to the Queen of the Sheda, who comes back in time over and over again from the far future at the end of it all to stripmine civilization whenever it gets rich and ripe enough; she ate the age of Neandertal super-science, destroyed the glory that was Camelot, and came for us here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the apotheosis of the superheroes—well, not us, no, but New Earth or Earth-1 or wherever it is in the Orrery where the superheroes live. Neh-Buh-Loh was tasked with killing the Queen’s daughter before they invade, but he couldn’t; he hid her, instead, and for failing his dark Queen he was exiled to the Himalayas. Frankenstein (née Frankenstein’s monster) finds him there and kills him. —In a corner of the data readout Frankenstein downloads from SHADE we learn that the effort of the Ultramarines has been considered unsuccessful; given superheroes, we grew up despondent anyway, came back still tainted. (Everything still wasn’t changed.) —“They could not heal you,” says Frankenstein, hauling Neh-Buh-Loh’s lance from his own dam’ body. “Instead they gave you medicine to hasten your end. The flaw… the doubt you feel… is the presence of death…”
That’s us, then, Earth-Q, the world the superheroes couldn’t save in the barely beating heart of an infant universe: disgraced, despondent, tainted, unchanged after all, come back a bully to eat our own four-color fictions, only to die writhing in the snow by the monstrous hand of Frankenstein.
So can you understand why I’d rather believe the superheroes haven’t gotten here yet? (Look about you! Do you see them anywhere yourself?) —Of course, Neh-Buh-Loh does say he’s only three billion years old when Frankenstein kills him, and we’ve been around some five times longer than that. (Well. Not us, per se.) And All-Star Superman is in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely continuity; it doesn’t exactly hang from the Orrery with all the fifty other universes, and we have to turn to hypertime and the snowflake to begin to make sense of that. —I have been a bit disingenuous.
All this muddle and hullabaloo roils just under the smoothly buffed surface of those corporate icons. They tried to iron it all out back in ’85 with Crisis on Infinite Earths: fix those nagging continuity errors by wiping them out; rewrite history to simplify it all: top all the Silver Age Crises on Earth-Two and Earth-Three with the Crisis to end all Crises: Infinite Earths! Monitor vs. Anti-Monitor in the battle to end all battles! Smash them all together in a super-genocide that leaves us with but one clear agreed-upon continuity, and start the universe all over again from there. A Big Crunch, that spawned the next Big Bang; and so we returned and began again.
But for all its noise and exuberance and color, its sound and fury, this is still a humble, ephemeral art; there is more than a little wabi-sabi in comics, and there is always already a flaw in continuity. And as a small army of cooks sets to writing and penciling and editing their multitude of bubbling broth-pots, that flaw begets more flaws, swarming and roiling about, and the attempts to work around them become more baroque until elseworlds and otherwhens hive themselves off what you now must call Earth-Prime, many worlds that offend the sensibilities of continuity’s Copenhagen-cops (what an easy way out, they sniff). And here we are, back where we started: now it’s an Infinite Crisis to top the Crisis on Infinite Earths, only when we’re done, it’s not that there’s one Earth again, but fifty-two, hanging from the Multiversal Orrery. (Except, you know, the All-Star books, and a bunch of the Elseworlds stuff, and some of the future stuff, all of which is in hypertime, or out on the snowflake elsewhere, which we don’t really talk about much, but anyway—)
Having already had a crisis, though, and kept going, you’ve always already had that crisis. Much as they might like to forget it, later. —Have another, or enough of them, and you’ll find you’re always already in a crisis. The fifty-two Earths were hung from the Orrery only a couple of years ago, and already they’re threatened by the Final Crisis (as final, I’m sure, as its predecessors were infinite). —“Do you feel as though time is speeding up, darling?” says Lord Fanny, somewhere out there in hypertime. “I mean, actually getting faster.”
And there’s already a flaw, as always: this Final Crisis was to have been precipitated by the deaths of the New Gods, and Orion, Darkseid’s son, raised by the Highfather, the bestial, well-meaning New God of war, is killed a couple of different times in a couple of different ways in a couple of different places by different writers and artists each keeping watch over their different pots of broth, all before his body can be found in the garbage in the opening pages of the Crisis itself. —As flaws go, this one’s simple enough to explain away: cowards, after all, die a thousand deaths! How many more might a god die? I’m much more concerned about that Gordian knot I kicked around above: the infant universe Qwewq, and us, left alone on Earth-Q: created by Superman after he found it, already abandoned by the Ultramarines who hadn’t left yet to save us from despondency, murdered by Frankenstein some twelve billion years before we have a chance even to show up. (Some fans complain how Superman in Final Crisis didn’t seem to know Orion, or the New Gods, when after all he’s served with them off and on for years; how much worse not to have recognized Earth-Q when he walked its streets a couple of years ago!) —And that tangle of inconsistencies all came not from a dozen different broth-pots and a dozen different cooks but just the one writer, Grant Morrison, who’s busily upending the Multiversal Orrery with its absolute honest f’reals this time Final Crisis.
And who is always already up to something. —Even if it isn’t always the same thing.
That went on a bit longer than I anticipated. —Most of this we didn’t talk about at all; most of it only occurred to me later. Exegesis d’escalier. And we didn’t only talk about comics, either. Lisa and I, for instance, had a long conversation in the kitchen about infants and kids and the limen between them, and the strange nature of the year that stretches before me and the Spouse and which overwhelms just about everything else these days. And I snagged a CD by Princess Superstar from Douglas’s freebie box. It was a good party.
Mostly I wanted to set up the punchline: it’s this thing I can’t find anymore on the web, since Jason Craft left and went to Earth X and then let Earth X fall off the web and then brought it back. He had a line in documenting the care and feeding of what he called proprietary, persistent, large-scale popular fictions—soap operas and arc-driven television, MMORPGs, the superhero multiverses of Marvel and DC, which are arguably the largest and most sophisticated of them all.
He wrote a brief squib in his long-lost blog, about something a friend of his said, when asked why he bought all those comics every month. Are they really that good? Are they any good at all?
Well, yes, they are any good at all, his friend said to this interlocutor. (Friend of a friend of a guy I’ve read on the internet whose blog I’m citing has gone the way of all æther.) But are they that good? See, and he hemmed and hawed a minute, as anybody would who’s spending that much money every month on ephemerally exciting attempts to maintain the iconicity, the brand equity that makes superheroes viable in the marketplace. And then he said, it’s like, you know, all this stuff is happening, right? I mean, sure, in comic books, yeah, but it’s happening there, and this is how I keep up. It’s like I’m reading the news, you know? Is the news that good?
Then you’ll look over that day, rewrite Dallas.
Because JR was too evil,
He was too evil.
It’s all because of JR that everything
Went crazy with the world,
With the world.
Make JR nice and all our history
Will be mystery.
This song could be about Jesus
But it can also be a song about you.
This song could be about Jesus
But it can also be a song about you.
Do all the things you should
Do it as you wish you would
Do all the things you should